The Inside Story

HOW TWO GIRLS FROM GEELONG MADE AUSTRALIAN BEAUTY FAMOUS

“So many brands that start, they go to retail first, the retailer tells them what they need to create, what the terms are and they make it really quite hard for brands to establish themselves. We love retailers and we see them as a partner, but we don’t rely on them for sales.”

Sarah and Emily Hamilton, the enigmatic twin founders of Australian indie beauty brand Sand&Sky (a huge success story), grew up in Geelong, an hour and a half south of Melbourne. 

They are the eldest of four siblings (actually Emily tells me she is officially the eldest!) and had an idyllic Australian childhood. They would walk everywhere, including to school, and if they did need to get in the car to go to sport or another activity the longest drive they had was just three minutes. They were an active, outdoor family. They had a great big backyard that filled them with hours of entertainment, they went to the beach in summer and they went to BBQs in the bush on most Sundays with family and friends. They came from a large Catholic family. Cousins everywhere. People everywhere. Support everywhere.

Life was easy. Life was grounded in a sense of normality.

Despite this simple life, the Hamilton family was far from ordinary. In fact quite the opposite. Emily and Sarah’s parents were very entrepreneurial. 

“I don’t think my Dad has ever worked for somebody else. He has always had an entrepreneurial drive. And he instilled that same drive in us. He used to say ‘clocking in and clocking out at work is not how you get ahead in life, you have to take risks,’” Emily shares.

He pushed the girls to be in the top 5% of everything they did. Not in an extreme tiger parent kind of way but in a more matter of fact conversational way. “Why bother doing something if you’re not going to do something well,” was his motto.

“He taught us to apply ourselves to get the best results,” says Emily.

THE HAMILTON FAMILY SUNDAY LUNCH

To this day, whenever possible the Hamilton family get together for Sunday family lunch. This is no ordinary family lunch, it’s a chance for everyone to talk about their businesses, the highs and the lows. Note, all the Hamilton siblings appear to be over achieving business owners.

“Everyone has a point of view on each other’s businesses”, shares Sarah. “But at the same time everyone is very respectful.”

When you think about family business, the Hamilton family are living and breathing proof that family business is an extraordinary thing. The Hamilton family have all invested in each other’s businesses, allowing each business access to capital to grow, but most importantly providing a strong sounding board of smart, motivated people that are all actively building businesses of their own. It creates a platform for everyone to weigh in on discussion, offering advice and opinion to help shape the future. I have affectionately termed it ‘the family’. Emily and Sarah know that ‘the family’ advice comes from a place of extreme love and care, each wanting nothing more than to see the other succeed.

SISTERS JOINING FORCES

I am intrigued to know how these two sisters decided it was a good idea to get into business together. How did they know they would be a formidable business team?

“Emily came to me and just told me that we have to start a business together,” Sarah smiles.

Makes sense, she is the eldest afterall by a good 2 minutes!

On a serious note, what is the secret to their success?

Emily explains… “I think it’s important to have your own area of focus and clear responsibilities. And I think in any job, even if it’s your own business, it’s being able to achieve, knowing you can do a good job.” Emily believes a shared set of values, a matching work ethic and dividing up the roles clearly has been the foundation of their successful business partnership. They trust each other implicitly that they will get the job done, and done with finesse.

Sand&Sky was not the first business venture that the girls embarked on. They cut their teeth in the beauty industry with a business called Bella Box. Bella Box is a subscription service and beauty community where every month subscribers receive a box filled with five or more samples, travel and full-sized products to explore and try. Bella Box was the perfect school for the girls to get to understand the beauty industry and what consumers want. They learnt how to market other people’s brands. Seeing what did and didn’t work was instrumental in helping them develop their ideas around Sand&Sky.

“One of our early investors in Bella Box said to us ‘you will always work 10 times as hard to make a sale in Australia than you will in the US’, so we decided we needed a global brand. And to do that we needed to become experts in ecommerce. So that is what we did. We learnt the ins and outs of ecommerce,” shares Sarah.

In working with so many beauty brands with Bella Box, Emily came to a realisation. Most of the beauty brands that came into Australia were run outside of Australia so they didn’t have good local knowledge. They didn’t know what it meant to be Australian. She also recognised that there was great fascination with Australia globally. The question the girls challenged themselves with is ‘How could we bring Australia to the world through beauty?’ They could feel the opportunity.

SAND&SKY AND SOCIAL MEDIA

When planning the launch of their new beauty brand Emily and Sarah had three products in mind and they were all wrapped around the idea of Australian pink clay.

“I’ll give the credit to Emily,” says Sarah. “The pink clay was her idea, she uncovered something very special.”

The first product was a face mask. At the time all the clay face masks in the market were a hideous black, and quite harsh on the skin. There was something about this beautiful pink product that had all the same benefits and even more. The girls wanted to launch a product that would dry faster than anything else out there, and to do that they needed to have a higher concentration of clay in the product. Most masks have water as their top ingredient. The Sand&Sky mask has clay as the top ingredient.

“When I discovered Australian pink clay I was so excited because I knew it would be a strong story. It was a unique ingredient that produced strong results. I worked out that by introducing the brush and a simple routine in terms of how to use the product, that this would be a great way to engage an audience through social media,” shares Emily.

Brand is everything to Emily and Sarah. They believe in always staying true to their brand and never deviating. They don’t worry about what their competitors are doing, they just focus on evolving to ensure they remain relevant to their customers. The brand is all about the Australian lifestyle. It is not about spending more time in the bathroom, it’s about simple, clean, effective skincare. And that thought comes into everything they create.

Right from the get go Emily and Sarah planned the brand to be predominately direct to consumer, and they knew that the best way to do that was through social media. Of course they have forged relationships with retailers and are stocked by retailers globally, however the core success for the brand lies in the fact that they talk directly with their customers.

Emily and Sarah are obsessed with customer engagement. They work with their customers to continuously improve their products and to get great insights for future products. Pre-launch of a product they will choose 40 or so real customers to treat to a special pre-launch occasion and get their honest opinion. And they use this opinion to make change. It’s not just about influencers, it’s about real people and what they want from the Sand&Sky products.

Interestingly while Emily was focused on building a social media following, Sarah was reaching out to retailers to introduce the brand. With all the work she did, she only got one retailer to reply to her. But when they created a great video on Instagram that went viral, Harrods in London came knocking.

“It was a Monday morning here, Sunday night there, and the head beauty buyer from Harrods emails me with a message that read something like “oh my god I’m seeing your video, and we really want your brand.” This was a pivotal moment. But I was stumped. I had done so much work in reaching out to so many retailers with exactly the same brand and had got nowhere. After that the retailers came to us. We never had to reach out to anyone again. So many brands that start, they go to retail first, the retailer tells them what they need to create, what the terms are and they make it really quite hard for brands to establish themselves. We love retailers and we see them as a partner, but we don’t rely on them for sales,” Sarah explains.

When the brand began to fly, the biggest challenge for Emily and Sarah was trying to keep up with orders. They worked so hard with their manufacturers to make sure there was enough stock to reach demand and that the product was always consistent. If you are on social media you can’t deviate too much from what everyone has seen. There is no tolerance with your customers. The girls recall having one batch that was a little more watery than usual, even though it was within tolerance of the formula people didn’t like it. They had to work on ensuring their products were perfect every time. 

There is one thing that Emily and Sarah believe was a great advantage for them in launching this brand, and that is that they had never launched their own beauty brand before so they were very naive in terms of the traditional approach. And this was a good thing. It meant they wrote their own rules, experimented and learnt by doing. When they eventually did hire someone who had been working for L’Oreal in Paris in product development he loved the fact that they hadn’t followed any of the beauty industry rules. 

Emily remembers saying “What rules? What are those rules, maybe they are important!”

DOING THE IMPOSSIBLE

For those of you reading this article that are in awe of what Emily and Sarah have achieved with Sand&Sky, well it doesn’t stop there. These busy ladies actually have four brands. Coco&Eve, Body Boss Fitness, Skinny Mint and of course Sand&Sky.

“Yes we are very busy but we love it. When we decided to move out of building other people’s brands and began to launch our own brands, we had built such a great team in Melbourne so it made sense to capitalise on that. We have the brands and the brand team, and then we have what we call the platform, which is really the back end operational stuff. We have five warehouses around the world and we ship to 70 countries. We have around 40 retailers and 15 Amazon markets. Did I mention it is busy?” laughs Emily.

Both Sarah and Emily have young children so it naturally means they need to create some balance in their life. It is a job that could consume you 24/7 especially with shipping to 70 different countries but the key for them is in hiring great people that allows them to have the confidence to step away for family time.

“I love what we do so much,” shares Emily. “My big love is product development. I love creating products. It’s an amazing process because you start with nothing and you work on something for a year or two and then when you launch you can say I created that. The whole process challenges me. I have a marketing background so I was used to doing something and seeing results. But when you are launching something new, you just don’t know if it is really going to work and this takes me out of my comfort zone. You learn so much about yourself out of this process.”

Emily and Sarah share with me that the best way they know to mitigate risk is to make sure there is a unique angle to anything they do. This doesn’t mean creating a whole new category, it just means making sure there is something different. They infuse this thought into anything they tackle.

THE RIGHT FIT

Emily and Sarah, despite being twins, have very different strengths and this is why they work so well as a team. 

“Emily’s much more creative than what I am. So I think she’s (despite our age) very on top of social media trends and she knows when something’s going to fly. Her insight into what will work is very impressive. When screen time monitoring was introduced, Emily nearly had a heart attack!” shares Sarah.

“One of our values is ‘getting shit done’, hustling and really making stuff happen. All the retail partnerships were built by Sarah. I was more cautious, I didn’t think we could handle it but to her credit she just went for it. That’s really been such a crucial element in the success of Sand&Sky. It helped make the brand famous,” explains Emily. 

THE FUTURE

Emily and Sarah have seen a lot of success in a short amount of time. I’m interested to know what has been the highlight of their crazy ride.

Sarah shares… “we’ve been able to do things in our personal lives that we didn’t expect. We never took it for granted. We’ve got huge gratitude. So for our 40th birthday we organised for a super famous musician to come and play for all our friends and family, and we made it a surprise for everyone. That was two and a half years ago, and I still have friends that say to me ‘Oh my God that was the most incredible night’.”

Emily adds in… “it felt like every bit of money that we made we put into a celebration with our friends, and we wanted to do something really fun. We wanted to share this amazing journey with them all.”

I tried to convince the girls to tell me who the famous musician was but their lips were sealed. I couldn’t coax it out of them at all, not even a hint. They had me curious. Who would these extraordinary women choose to celebrate their 40th with? I wonder what their 50th will be like?

Back to all seriousness, what is the dream for this hot Australian brand? Both girls agree that their goal is to make Sand&Sky the biggest Australian skincare brand in the market. They look to the Japanese brand Tatcha as inspiration. Tatcha has such incredible brand love that their customers are literally waiting and anticipating the next new product.

“We just want to continue to grow this unique brand, and to ensure every product we launch has a unique story with unique benefits. This we believe will take Australian beauty all the way,” Emily smiles.

Words: Emma Scott
Photography: @sandandsky

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